Have you ever seen a very old wooden cabinet, quite black with age and carved all over with leaves and filigree-work? Such an one stood in a sitting-room, and had been in the family from the great-grandmother’s time. It was covered from top to bottom with carved roses and tulips, amongst which there were the most extraordinary flourishes, and from these sprang the antlered heads of stags, whilst on the top, in the middle, stood a whole figure. He was ridiculous enough to look at, with goat’s legs, short horns on his head, and a long beard, besides which he was constantly grinning, for it could not be called a laugh. The children christened him the GoatslegHighadjutantgeneralmilitarycommandant, for that was a difficult name to pronounce, and a title not conferred upon many. To carve him cannot have been easy work, but there he stood, constantly looking at the table under the looking-glass, for there was the loveliest little china Shepherdess. Her shoes were gilt, and her dress neatly fastened up with a red rose, and then she had a gilt hat and a shepherdess’s crook. She was, indeed, lovely. Close to her stood a little Sweep, as black as any coal, but he, too, was entirely made of china; he was quite as neat and clean as anyone else, for that he was a Sweep was, of course, only to represent something, and the potter could just as well have made a prince of him.
There he stood, with his face red and white, just like a girl, and that was a mistake, for it might have been blackened a little. He was close to the Shepherdess, and they had both been placed where they stood, which, being the case, they were naturally engaged to each other, and well suited they were, for they were made of the same china, and were both little.
Not far from them there was another figure, but three times as big, a Chinese, who could nod his head. He was also made of china, and pretended to be the Shepherdess’s grandfather, though he could not prove it, so claimed authority over her, and had promised her to the GoatslegHighadjutantgeneralmilitarycommandant.
“You will have a husband,” the old Chinese said, “who I almost believe is made of mahogany, and he has the whole cabinet full of plate, besides the valuables that are in the hidden drawers.”
“I will not go into the dark cabinet,” the little Shepherdess said, “for I have heard that he has eleven china wives in there.”
“Then you will make the twelfth,” the old Chinese said, “for this very night your marriage shall take place.” He then nodded his head and fell asleep.
The little Shepherdess cried and looked at her dearly beloved china Sweep.
“I must ask you,” she said, “to go with me out into the wide world, for here we cannot stay.”
“Your will is my will,” she little Sweep said. “Let us go at once, and I have no doubt by my calling I shall gain sufficient to keep you.”
“Were we but safely down from the table,” she said, ‘for I shall never be happy till we are out in the wide world.”
He consoled her, and showed her where to put her little feet, on the projections and ornaments, within their reach, and they got safely to the floor, but when they looked towards the old cabinet all was confusion there. The stags stretched their heads further out, raising their antlers, and turned their necks from side to side. The GoatslegHighadjutantgeneralmilitarycommandant jumped high up into the air, and cried as loud as he could to the old Chinese, “They are now running away! they are now running away!”
At this they were frightened, and they jumped into the cupboard under the window-seat.
Here lay three or four packs of cards, which were not complete, and a little doll’s theater, in which a play was being acted, and the Queens of hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades sat in the front row fanning themselves with their tulips, whilst behind them stood the Knaves, who seemed to be their pages. The plot of the play was the difficulties thrown in the way of two persons who wished to be married, and the little Shepherdess cried, for it was her own story.
“I cannot bear this,” she said, “I must get out of the cupboard.” But when they were out and looked up at the table, they saw the old Chinese was awake and his whole body shaking.
“Now the old Chinese is coming,” the little Shepherdess cried, and fell down upon her china knees, she was in such a fright.
“I have an idea,” the Sweep said. “Let us get into the potpourri-jar which stands there in the corner, where we can lie on rose-leaves and lavender, and throw salt in his eyes if he comes.”
“That cannot help us,” she said; “Besides, I know that the old Chinese and the potpourri-jar were once engaged to each other, and there always remains some sort of tie between people with whom such a connection has existed. No, there is nothing left for us but to go out in the wide world.”
“Have you really courage to go out with me into the wide world?’ the Sweep asked. “Have you considered how large it is, and that we can never come back here?”
“Yes, I have,” she answered.
The Sweep looked at her intently, and then said, “My way lies up the chimney, and that way I know well enough, and if you really have courage to go with me, we shall soon mount up so high that they will never be able to reach us.”
And he led her to the grate.
“How black it looks up there!” she said, but still she went with him, and they had not gone far when he exclaimed, “Look, what a beautiful star is shining there above!”
It was a real star in the heavens shining down upon them, as if to show them the way. They crept on and climbed, and a dreadful way it was—so high, so high, but he held and lifted her, and showed her where to place her little china feet, till at last they reached the edge of the chimney, where they seated themselves, for they were very tired, as well they might be.
The sky, with all its stars, was above them, and below them lay all the roofs of the city, and they could see far around, so far out into the world. The poor Shepherdess had never imagined anything like it, and laying her little head on her Sweep’s breast, she cried so that the gold was washed off her girdle.
“That is too much,” she sobbed. “That I can never bear. The world is too large; oh, were I but back again on the table under the looking-glass! I shall never know happiness till I am back there. I have followed you into the world, and if you care for me you must now go back with me.”
The Sweep spoke most reasonably and sensibly to her, spoke of the old Chinese, and of the GoatslegHighadjutantgeneralmilitarycommandant, but she sobbed so violently that he was obliged to do as she wished, though it was foolish.
They therefore climbed down again with much trouble and difficulty, and when they got near the bottom they stopped to listen, but all being quiet they stepped into the room. There lay the old Chinese on the floor; he had fallen off the table when the attempted to follow them, and there he lay broken into three pieces. His whole back had come off in one piece, and his head had rolled far off into a corner of the room.
“That is horrible!” the little Shepherdess said. “My old grandfather is broken to pieces, and it is our fault. Oh, I shall never survive it!” And she wrung her little hands.
“He can be riveted,” the Sweep said. “He can very well be riveted. Do not you give way so, for if they put a good strong rivet in his back and neck he will be as good as new again, and will be able to say many unpleasant things to us yet.”
“Do you think so?” she said, and they then got on to the table again where they had always stood.
“It was not of much use going all the way we did,” the Sweep said; “we might just as well have saved ourselves that trouble.”
“Oh, if my poor old grandfather were but riveted,” the Shepherdess said. “Will it cost very much?”
The family had him riveted, and he was in every way as good as new again, excepting that, owing to the rivet in his neck, he could no longer nod his head.
“You have grown proud since you were broken to pieces,” the GoatslegHighadjutantgeneralmilitarycommandant said, “but I do not see any good reason for it. Now, am I to have her, or am I not?”
The Sweep and the little Shepherdess looked so beseechingly at the old Chinese, fearing that he would nod, but he could not. He did not choose to tell a stranger that he had a rivet in the back of his neck, so he was quiet, and the Shepherdess and Sweep remained together, loving each other till they got broken.